From the fertile soil of Pongola in KwaZulu-Natal, Diana Mngomezulu has sprouted into one of the most promising new plant scientists to emerge from the University of the Free State (UFS).
After spending much of her focus on disease-resistance breeding during her honours’ studies, Mngomezulu is now pursuing her Master’s degree by researching Fusarium head blight disease (FHB) in wheat.
Fusarium is a fungal disease that leads to premature bleaching of the wheat head, which can lead to reduced yield and seed quality. This makes it one of the most severe diseases found in wheat. Her research, therefore, is focused on developing wheat with a stronger genetic resistance to FHB.
For Mngomezulu, becoming a scientist was non-negotiable, but she tells Food For Mzansi that her priorities were never focused solely on academia.
“Taking part in sports events was one of the things I also worked hard in, especially since it meant that I got to spend time out of class and got to travel to other schools. Whilst traveling I would get to see different types of vegetation, dams and rivers along the road. Growing up in Pongola granted me the privilege to see what fertile soil could produce and the diverse wildlife our country has to offer,” she says.
Following her childhood dream
Mngomezulu recalls her love for mathematics being unearthed during her primary school years. It was the one subject she could grasp with relative ease though she admits that science was never too far away.
“I knew from primary school I wanted to be a scientist. I was mostly interested in a truck that I was told transports sewerage to factories to make fertiliser for plants. I thought to myself, ‘Just as farmers give us food, I want to provide food for the plants.’”
This curiosity led to the department of plant sciences at UFS.
“Agriculture is amazing, just as much as being a scientist is. Luckily for me, I could combine the two for the better. I attended Vryheid Agricultural High School [in northern KwaZulu-Natal]. In high school, that’s where career decisions must be made. The type of subjects you take in grade 10 influences the type of courses you can take in a tertiary institute.”
Mngomezulu says her subject package included mathematics, physical science, life sciences and agricultural sciences. She also formed part of her high school’s waste management group and worked with the United States-based Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment programme. This saw her attend a learning expedition in India in 2014.
She adds that while not all high school learners end up meeting the minimum requirements for admission into a university, the UFS offers an extended academic programme, which she herself enrolled in. She completed her BSc degree in botany and plant breeding in 2020.
Once she completes the next phase of her academic career, Mngomezulu feels the possibilities are endless.
“Being a plant scientist is like hitting the jackpot,” she says.
She explains that plant breeders work on different projects which include resistance breeding, nutrition and abiotic and biotic stresses.
“They can also work as a lab researcher, technician, statistical analyst, lawyers [specialising in plant breeders’ rights), academics and extension [officers]. [That is] someone who works between plant breeders and farmers but must be a plant breeder by qualification.
“If one has a botany qualification they can work focusing in ecology, plant biotechnology, plant physiology, plant biochemistry, plant molecular biology, plant taxonomy, plant systematics and the list goes on. I haven’t even touched careers in plant pathology.”
Though Mngomezulu does not yet have much background in plant pathology, she has learnt a lot from Dr Adré Minnaar-Ontong, the head of plant sciences at the UFS, as well as the plant pathology laboratory staff. “By the time I obtain my Master’s degree, I would have acquired some top-class knowledge,” she says proudly.
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